The House of Representatives has given the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) a happy ending in its long struggle to stay alive.
The office of Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) confirmed that the House reached a majority voice vote on H.R. Bill 2867, and thus ensured that USCIRF will receive funding for an additional three years.
The government watchdog group was set up in 1998 to advise the president, Congress and the State Department on religious persecution abroad. Wolf drafted the language for the commission's reauthorization and has been one of its strongest supporters.
"The commission is a beacon of hope for those whose most fundamental liberties are under assault," Wolf said in a statement. "These individuals long to have their plight known and their cause championed. I am grateful that Congress recognizes the importance of the work of the commission."
USCIRF has needed all the help it could get since its funding originally expired in September. Congress decided to keep it around until November, but the group continuously faced the threat of shutdown until today’s House vote. The Friday morning House vote actually took place the same day of USCIRF’s scheduled extinction had the bill not been approved.
"We can start unpacking the boxes now and get back to work," said Leonard A. Leo, USCIRF's chair, to The Christian Post. "This is good news for persecuted people from all over the globe. Freedom of religion is essential to the individual dignity and worth of people everywhere."
Lindsay Vessey, Open Doors USA's advocacy director, said her group was excited for continuing relations with USCIRF as they're a valuable ally in combating religious persecution abroad. All the same, she said, she found it shameful that Congress took so long to approve USCIRF's second chance.
As The Christian Post has previously reported, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) allegedly delayed passage of USCIRF's funding on account of other budget concessions in the same legislation. Calls to Sen. Durbin's office were not returned before press time.
"USCIRF is the only government organization of its kind in America," Vessey said. "When we don't stand up for religious freedom in other countries, we risk losing them here. We have a moral obligation here in the United States to speak out for that freedom abroad."
Leo said USCIRF has protected religious groups from persecution since 1998 by listing oppressive nations as "countries of particular concern." Such "CPCs" are worth highlighting, he said, as they keep America's foreign policy focused on protecting religious liberty. Once USCIRF resumes full operations, he added, it plans on targeting Bahrain for its intolerant government and Iraq after the withdrawal of American troops.
"The difficulties and challenges we faced in this process suggest that unfortunately freedom of religion doesn't have the place of prominence it should in our foreign policy," Leo said. "Countries that ensure religious freedom are more stable, more productive and more agreeable with the rest of the world. This is thus in our country's national interest."
USCIRF will undergo some cosmetic changes as part of its reauthorization. Dr. Richard Land – executive editor of The Christian Post, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and an USCIRF commissioner – said that its nine commissioners will now face two-year-term limits and that their travel will receive greater government regulation. Despite the new restrictions, he said it was more important continuing the commission's work than keeping old practices.
"I've never been more proud to be an American than I have during my service on this commission," said Land, who will leave the group with seven other commissioners in 90 days due to the new term limits. "I am comforted by the fact others will have the opportunity to serve and be blessed like I was. We've made a real difference in real peoples' lives."
Dr. Carl Moeller, president and CEO of Open Doors USA, commented in a statement that Congress' decision finally ended months of speculation on USCIRF's existence. He said he hoped President Obama would approve the group's funding so they can keep monitoring intolerant regimes abroad.
"Praise the Lord that action finally produced results, even if it was at the last minute," Moeller said. "The continued existence of the USCIRF will provide valuable accountability to religious rights violators worldwide."
The USCIRF reauthorization bill will now head to President Obama’s desk to be signed.
Correction: Friday, December 16, 2011:
An article on Friday, December 16, 2011, about a U.S. House vote on USCIRF reauthorization incorrectly reported that the bill voted on was titled H.R. Bill 1856. H.R. Bill 1856 is the title of an earlier legislation introduced that included USCIRF, but members of Congress decided to vote on a separate bill, H.R. 2867, that only included USCIRF reauthorization. Also, the vote was conducted by the entire House, not just by members of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, the office of Rep. Frank Wolf clarified.